Still relevant?: WVPT and WHTJ public television stations merge, say declining revenues not a factor

Terri Allard has hosted 11 seasons of “Charlottesville Inside Out,” and sees no danger of running out of ideas. Photo by Ryan Jones Terri Allard has hosted 11 seasons of “Charlottesville Inside Out,” and sees no danger of running out of ideas. Photo by Ryan Jones

For years, two out-of-town public television stations fought to claim status as Charlottesville’s “local” PBS station. Now they both can say that.

Harrisonburg’s WVPT is being consolidated into Commonwealth Public Broadcasting Corporation, the parent company of Richmond-based WHTJ, and the merger will offer local viewers two additional stations.

Instead of duplicate offerings of “Nova” or “Masterpiece Theater,” Charlottesville PBSers will have a counterprogramming channel, where they can watch “Masterpiece” on a night other than Sunday. And it’ll be harder than ever to get the children to sleep with a 24/7 PBS Kids station.

Both stations have seen declines in revenue in recent years. WVPT saw a total revenue drop of more than $1 million, according to its 2014 and 2015 990 tax forms. And WHTJ reported a nearly $400,000 revenue deficit in 2015.

That, says Commonwealth’s board chair Todd Stansbury, had little to do with the merger. While some PBS stations around the country are struggling to keep the lights on, he says, the two companies here “have been pretty healthy over prior years.”

He compares it to fixing the roof while the sun is shining rather than when it’s raining. The merger, he says, solves two problems in Charlottesville while expanding to nearly 1 million homes in central Virginia.

“It eliminates market confusion” about two independently owned public television stations in the same market that at times has even confused donors, says Stansbury. And by eliminating the overlap in programming, the spare station will offer alternatives.

“Charlottesville is going to get a very big bang for its buck out of this,” he enthuses.

Stansbury, who lives in Charlottesville, acknowledges that these are tougher times for PBS stations than back in the days when public television was one of four broadcast networks available.

The new entity wants to be a content creator delivering on broadband, which is how a lot of people now do their viewing, he says. “We still have a large part of our market receiving it over the air,” he says. The merger “will give us the resources we need while maintaining services for our legacy viewers.”

The idea of combining has been talked about for years, says Stansbury, but it helped that Stephen Davis, chair of WVPT’s Shenandoah Valley Educational Television Corporation board, also lives in Charlottesville.

Once the merger is complete in the spring, WVPT staffers will become employees of Commonwealth Public Broadcasting while it decides “the highest and best use of personnel and facilities,” says Stansbury.

Singer-songwriter Terri Allard is getting ready to premiere the 11th season of “Charlottesville Inside Out,” which she hosts and co-produces, as well as being WHTJ’s community engagement manager. She sees the union as a “win-win” for Charlottesville, giving viewers greater flexibility in “what they watch and when they watch it.”

Promises Allard, “it’s going to be twice as much fun.”

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